'To All the Boys I've Loved Before' is a charming young adult story of sisters and romance

Author Jenny Han delivers over and above in this delightful teen love story.

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    To All the Boys I've Loved Before,
    by Jenny Han,
    Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers,
    368 pp.
    View Caption

I’m a sucker for an amazing premise and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before had me from the jacket copy: Girl writes letters to boys she used to love. Someone mails the letters. Girl must deal with the fallout.

Right??

The best part is, author Jenny Han delivers over and above. The letters are just Act I. What follows is one charming teen love story set within another, interlaced with a sister love story all its own. It’s comic, original, and “adorkable,” and I love it from stem to stern.

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Our heroine is the sweetly quirky Lara Jean Covey, middle child of three sisters. She’s a winning combination of retro, modern, dreamy, and goofy – the kind of girl who listens to The Shirelles, quotes "Sleepless in Seattle," and wears vintage floral sunsuits. Lara Jean keeps a hatbox of sentimental stuff, most notably that collection of letters written to former loves.

The other main players are her older sister, Margot, and Josh, the archetypal Boy Next Door. Margot is sensible, controlled, and selfless, much like Elinor Dashwood in "Sense and Sensibility." When their mom passed on years ago, Margot stepped into her shoes, looking after their distracted dad and shepherding Lara Jean and their younger sister, Kitty. She keeps the schedule, plans meals, and drives everyone around.

Josh is the Laurie to their March girls. He’s a darling character: reliable, funny, smart, and handsome in that disarming, dimpled, Josh Hutcherson way. The whole family adores him. He and Margot have been dating for a while, and unbeknownst to all, Lara Jean was in love with him for years.

We enter as Margot is preparing to leave for college in Scotland. (Fun fact: she’ll attend the University of St Andrews, alma mater of Prince William and Kate Middleton!) Two major shocks occur: Margot breaks up with Josh before she leaves, and Lara Jean’s old letters get mailed – including one to popular, cocky Peter Kavinsky and, worse, one to Josh. Our dear heroine who hates change must a) take over Margot’s command of the house, b) negotiate the new dynamic of two sisters instead of three, and c) convince Josh that she’s not in love with him anymore.

She tries to throw Josh off the scent by striking up a fake relationship with Peter, who is full of himself yet totally lovable. Their agreement starts out like Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” but over time it turns into real friendship (and maybe more).

Meanwhile, Lara Jean worries that she won’t live up to Perfect Margot’s example. When driving Kitty around, she’s a knot of anxiety. “I want to feel like the big sister,” she thinks nervously. “I want her to relax in the passenger seat, safe in the knowledge that Lara Jean will get her where she needs to go, just like I did with Margot.”

She learns over time that she doesn’t have to be exactly like Margot – and that’s okay. If she was, it wouldn’t be fair, fun, or freeing. Lara Jean grows into responsibility, learns after a few stumbles, and finds her footing as a more competent and confident version of herself.

On the flip side, Margot must come to terms with the fact that her family can carry on without her running the show. The calls home are awkward: Everyone else is happy, sharing new inside jokes, while she sits alone in her dorm room, unable to share her new life with them.

Oh, this book. I laughed, I gasped, I found a new favorite author. (I also couldn’t get this Johnny Carson parody out of my head, but that’s fine.) This was my first Jenny Han book, and she blew the roof off for pure writing talent. Han’s characters are extraordinary: realistically flawed, endearing, and rich with the juxtaposition of know-it-all-ness and naïveté that defines teenage-hood. 

Take this intro description of Peter: “He has the look of a Handsome Boy from a different time. He could be a dashing World War I soldier, handsome enough for a girl to wait years for him to come back from war, so handsome she could wait forever. He could be wearing a red letterman’s jacket, driving around in a Corvette with the top down, one arm on the steering wheel, on his way to pick up his girl for the sock hop. Peter’s kind of wholesome good looks feel more like yesterday than today.”

I read that passage and know exactly who Peter is and what he looks like. We never learn his hair color or eye color or height, but it doesn’t matter because Han has already captured his likeness – and given us a rich framework for Lara Jean’s thought process.

Han also handles sister relationships better than any other YA author I’ve ever read. That places her squarely in my top echelon of YA writers – with, if not above, the likes of Sarah Dessen, Meg Cabot, and Dodie Smith.

Sister relationships are complex, to say the least. Sisters love each other ferociously and will always go to bat for each other, yet they compete, compare, and clash more intensely with each other than with anyone else. They know each other’s sore spots and deepest desires, and their shared history means that they don’t have to say anything to say everything.

I speak from experience, as I have two older sisters. When my oldest sister Emily went to college, second sister Amy and I had to reassess our hierarchy, just like Lara Jean and Kitty. Suddenly there were different responsibilities and dynamics, and we grew closer to each other. 

Then when Amy and Emily were at college with each other and I was still in high school, our relationships evolved again. Han nails the shifting feel of that time period.

There were too many wonderful details to list, from Kitty’s relentless requests for a puppy to the artful incorporation of the girls’ Korean heritage. "To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before" is worth its weight in gold – simply spectacular. Required reading for sisters everywhere!

Katie Ward Beim-Esche is the Monitor young adult fiction critic.

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